A Tragic Lockdown for India’s Migrant Workers
Maria Tavernini 15 April 2020

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the “Janata Curfew”, a 14 hour-long lockdown last March 22nd, middle class Indians caught up in a swirl of nationalism followed the invitation to go on their balconies to applaud and bang thalis (metal plates) and pots in solidarity with medical staff in what turned out to be rehearsal for the “real” lockdown. On the following day, the PM announced the country’s sudden 3-weeks total halt to curb the coronavirus contagion – that climbed to 10,453 infected and 358 deaths according to official figures, which are believed to be largely underestimated – but he seemed to forget that social distancing is a privilege. For many, in India, it is utterly a mirage. Hours later, millions of people poured onto the streets heading back to their villages of origin: trains, buses, any form of transport, were canceled, leaving them with no other option than to walk home, in some cases, for hundreds of kilometers. A far cry from banging their empty thalis.

The lockdown in the world’s second most populous country and the obligation to stay home (in many cases implemented through the use of force) has resulted in millions of people being jobless, penniless and sometimes even homeless in the bowels of India’s megacities. How to obey the lockdown and social distancing in such conditions? For the “army” of migrant workers and daily-wage laborers who do not have stable jobs and often no permanent housing in the cities to which they migrate, the only option was to return home. The announcement of a three weeks lockdown in India triggered a mass exodus from cities to rural areas. For its magnitude, it has been called the “biggest migration on foot after Partition”, when the division of the British Raj gave way to a massive migration between India and Pakistan. No doubt that the lockdown in a nation of 1.37 billion people would prove hard but it was also poorly planned, according to criticisms that have inundated the central government.



Some 120 million migrant and seasonal workers cyclically move to cities, farms and industries in India to be employed, irregularly and with no guarantees or social safety whatsoever, as the backbone of India’s economic growth. A vulnerable group that has long remained invisible both in social and political terms. They are farmers, factory-workers, but also street cleaners, rickshaw-pullers, bricklayers, painters and waiters, street vendors and servants: they go to cities in search of work, to escape poverty, and often end up living on the streets, in shared dormitories or in slums, at the edges of a society that needs their work but seldom acknowledges it. We are talking about millions of migrant workers in India that, overnight, have been stripped of their meagre means of survival. “We will die of hunger before the virus”, was a common cry among people packed in overloaded trucks, families with small children and the elderly walking barefoot while police was abusing them for defying the nation-wide curfew. A group of migrants returning home during the lockdown was doused in bleach used to sanitize buses. Some were shunned in their own villages. Then, borders were sealed also for those on foot and thousands were stranded along the way.

Some others stayed behind, struggling in overcrowded slums or dorms. How to survive in a big and hostile city with no income? How to feed your children when your livelihood has been forcefully put on halt? How can one respect social distancing in slums or on the city pavements that many call “home”? Something the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, did not bother to think of. He announced emergency measures to face the economic crisis but when the lockdown was established there was still no mention of aid. Although India’s relief package promised food rations for roughly 800 million people, activists say only few of those in need have the papers to secure these benefits. The others, urban and rural poor with no documents proving their condition, are left alone struggling for survival. Without such welfare, India could be facing a full-blown humanitarian crisis, experts say. Last Tuesday Modi, in his third address to the nation in a month over the pandemic, has extended the lockdown until May 3rd and said it will be enforced even more strictly.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) described the coronavirus pandemic as “the worst global crisis since World War II”. The two billion people around the world that work in the informal sector (mostly in emerging and developing economies) are particularly at risk. India and other South Asian countries are likely to record the worst growth in four decades this year due to the Covid-19 outbreak, according to a report by the World Bank and the IMF. “The Indian economy was already in bad shape, we were almost in a recession even before this emergency happened: employment, investment, consumption, all these indicators were down before the pandemic. Then an extraordinary lockdown was imposed in India, the harshest in the world: everything was closed down in a country where 95 percent of the workers are informal and have no protection. It is unbelievable that any government could do this, and enforce it with 4-hours’ notice, so that nobody had the time to prepare”, development economist, Jayati Ghosh, head of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told ResetDoc.

“There are about 100 million rural-urban migrants in India who work in the informal sector and it is quite extraordinary that nothing was thought of for them: the economic package was announced just afterwards and anyway is not sufficient. Many relief measures were already included in the budget earlier. Many people have lost jobs and will not get paid during the lockdown: they live day-by-day, their housing arrangements are dependent on their work; others were thrown out by their landlords for fear of the virus; slums are extremely congested and have no water or soap facilities to keep good hygiene”, continues Ghosh, “Authorities announced the lockdown, but they did not make any arrangement for migrants and treated them like criminals”. The government had two months to figure things out, says the economist, while the opposition had been pushing for action during the past month, the population was only given a 4 hour to organize themselves. “It’s cruel”, she adds, “A rational, human government would have given a one-week notice. We have a government that has gotten away with so much, that they think they can continue to get away with anything”.

On top of the staggering economic impact, the lockdown has brought havoc in the food chain as well: since borders are fully sealed, inter-state trucks transporting food and perishable good have been stranded for days along the highways. “Many of us have been warning of an imminent food crisis, the lockdown has been so badly planned and so poorly implemented that you can actually see the shortages. Farmers are not able to bring their products to markets so fruits and vegetable are rotting, they are not able to harvest the wheat crops. Shortages are slowly coming to cities; it is so bad, it is unbelievable”, says Ghosh. “People are starving. And it’s not just the government that is cruel; also the Chief Justice of India, (the head of the judiciary – ed.), replying to a plea by human rights activist Harsh Mander, to guarantee wages for migrant workers, [seemed to recall] ‘Marie Antoinette’, claiming that ‘they are getting food, so they don’t need wages as well’. It is really a grim situation”.


Photo: Sam Panthaky / AFP

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